Publisher: THQ / Developer: Vigil Games / Release Date: August 14, 2012 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Violence]
Darksiders 2 is like a really great cover band putting out an original album. Which is not to say that it borrows any less heavily from popular action games than the first Darksiders. But Vigil has clearly expanded its RPG vocabulary, incorporating more of its own voice. Design and technical issues crop up that feel symptomatic of this game’s increased scope and, at some points, Darksiders 2 comes scarily close to buckling entirely under its own ambition. But the core of the third-person action experience here is so solid that it’s easy to look past some of the more glaring problems.
Despite what his name may suggest, Death’s main motivation in Darksiders 2 is not to destroy life, but to restore it. He wants to reverse the prematurely launched Apocalypse on Earth, an event for which his fellow Horseman, War, has received a lion’s share of the blame.
Clearing the name of his brother is, as Death often states, about providing balance–not just to the universe but also to himself. The ancient race known as the Nephelim were, with the exception of the four horsemen, destroyed at the hands of Death. It’s a genocide he regrets and these personal issues manifest themselves in his motivation through Darksiders 2.
Though his endeavor might seem noble, Death is kind of a dick. His witty dialogue and sarcastic responses are just the kind of restrained comic relief that benefits a serious epic action adventure game like this. He almost always questions the tasks brought to him, which was reflective of my own feelings about what was happening. The classic anti-hero demeanor serves Death well and often provides the reason to actually care about this character.
But even a compelling protagonist can’t really save Darksiders 2 from some annoying pacing problems, an issue that also plagued Darksiders 1. Darksiders 2 kicks off with a few “fuck yeah” moments but the wind in the sails is gone pretty quickly when the majority of the second act involves Death performing arbitrary tasks designed to beat you over the head with the lore rather than explore this interesting character.
The final act of Darksiders 2 struggles to wrap up the narrative in a satisfying way. The major conflict, the whole reason for Death’s herculean journey, remains unresolved when the credits role. I understand holding back for another sequel but the game almost feels incomplete. There’s a build up to a payoff that never occurs and it left a sour taste in my mouth.
Much like the first game, the strength of Darksiders 2 lies less in innovation and more on well-worn but well-executed mechanics. A majority of Darksiders 2 involves progressing through a series of puzzle and combat scenario-filled dungeons that culminate in multi-stage boss battles requiring recently acquired items or weapons.
Progression through the game’s dungeons leads to unlocking more items and skills. As your set of tools gets bigger the puzzles and dungeons get trickier and more interesting. Straightforward unlocks like a hookshot equivalent eventually lead to more complex dungeons and puzzles involving the Void Walker (a Portal gun-like device) and the Soul Split ability that allows you to swap between two separate versions of Death.
If I had to break down and rate individual parts of the game, the combat would easily be my favorite. Your primary weapons are a pair of scythes, supplemented by a wide variety of secondary weapons that can preform pretty differently. There’s a lot of scooting around enemies to slash them in the back or popping them in the air to preform Devil May Cry-like juggles. Every choice from how far Death can dash to the slow speed of the more powerful secondary weapons feels deliberate. It’s a tight and responsive system and had me looking forward to every combat scenario.
The combat also benefits greatly from the newly introduced RPG elements. For starters, Death has a skill tree that unlocks or upgrades skills each time he levels up. I ended up dropping a bunch of points into Death’s necromancy skills, allowing me to summon a group of minions who could eventually draw aggro and explode for fire damage on death. Using them to off tank smaller enemies so I could focus on larger ones or vice versa adds an interesting layer of strategy not present in a lot of action RPGs.
The increased focus on customization also extends to the new loot system. If you have a lust for armor and weapons whose quality and rarity is represented by different colors then Darksiders 2 may be able to satiate you. The game never quite rains loot like a Diablo 3 but there’s a pretty steady stream of weapons and armor. Stat bonuses on these items like health regen or crit chance allow you to further specialize.
The introduction of side quests, another popular RPG mechanic, proves more problematic. They tend to involve back tracking through already completed dungeon areas and, on more than one occasion, I traveled to an objective only to discover I had no way of completing it until later in the game. It would be nice if the game gated content until it knew you could actually do it.
If the grander scope of Darksiders 2 bites Vigil in the ass anywhere, it’s on a technical level. It almost consistently suffers from frame rate problems. Dips occur frequently when riding in the open world or encountering large numbers of enemies on screen. For a fast-paced action game, this is obviously problematic.
Low-resolution textures and sparse vegetation are maybe an attempt to alleviate this issue but they make for environments that often feel sparse. Still, Darksiders 2 gets by on its awesome art style. It’s been a core tenet of the series and Vigil takes full advantage of the freedom that comes from most of the game not being set on Earth. Without this restraint, the creature and environment design is endlessly imaginative. My personal favorite location is a city of the dead that’s chained to two huge serpents keeping it a float.
Vigil nailed the Zelda formula in Darksiders 1. In attempting to evolve that in this sequel, the team stumbles a bit. It’s like they wanted to keep Darksiders 2 mechanically consistent without drawing such overt references to their source material. Some story and technical blemishes crop up from this process but they don’t distract from the great dungeon design and combat. Darksiders 2 is a great game, with still considerable room for improvement. With THQ’s current financial situation it’s possible we may never see a Darksiders 3 but I’ve got my fingers crossed.